After a truly ugly start, Celtics’ epic comeback is a thing of beauty

Kyrie Irving and the Celtics fell behind by 26 points before mounting a comeback.
Kyrie Irving and the Celtics fell behind by 26 points before mounting a comeback.(JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF)

To equal the largest comeback in the NBA this season, the Celtics would have to be almost perfect. And the problem with that is that falling behind by 26 points, as Boston did against the Rockets, required so many flawed moments that to imagine perfection on this very same night seemed almost silly.

Yet there the Celtics were, with a chance. Yes, they would need some calls to go their way. Yes, they would need to execute and be defensive pests. Yes, they would need all of it. But sometimes long-shots come through.

In this case, Al Horford’s 5-foot hook shot with 3.9 seconds left gave the Celtics their first lead of the night, and it was perhaps the most normal play of a frenetic final 10 seconds, as the Celtics held on for a 99-98 win that was about as improbable as they come.


“I’ve had a few comebacks, but that was a special one,” Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving said. “Just from how we started, it was so ugly, man. It was just so ugly.”

The Celtics trailed by 26 points in the first half and were still behind by 23 with just over 5 minutes left in the third quarter.

With 7.3 seconds left, Marcus Smart fed Jayson Tatum for a dunk to pull Boston within 98-97. Replays showed that Smart shuffled his feet several times before making the pass, but the travel was not called. Both teams were out of timeouts, and as the Rockets looked to inbound the ball to Harden, the All-Star was called for pushing Smart off of him.

Al Horford watches his fourth-quarter hook shot go into the basket to put the Celtics up, 99-98.
Al Horford watches his fourth-quarter hook shot go into the basket to put the Celtics up, 99-98.(JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF)

“We were just trying to make it real uncomfortable for him the whole night,” Smart said. “He lost it and gave me a little nudge, and it was kind of right in front of the official, and he called it.”


From the sideline, Celtics coach Brad Stevens called a play that would involve multiple handoffs before ending up in the hands of Irving. But then he saw something in Houston’s defense that he liked, and he motioned for Horford to get to work.

The big man backed down Houston’s Tarik Black with two powerful dribbles before converting a right-handed hook. He’d air-balled the same shot in the previous quarter, but this one splashed through the net and made it 99-98 with 3.7 seconds to play.

Then Harden and Smart locked up again, and Harden was called for pushing off Smart, again.

“And that,” Smart said, “was pretty much the game.”

Horford was fouled and he missed the first free throw. He missed the second one intentionally, but Eric Gordon’s 60-foot heave caromed off the top of the backboard. Horford had perhaps the clearest look at that shot as anyone, and he calmly pumped his right fist once he saw the ball’s trajectory.

The officiating was a glaring subplot throughout the night. Head referee Mark Lindsay missed the game with a sore back, so the game was called by just a two-man crew. Irving said that when he went out for the opening tip, he asked where the backup ref was, and was told there was none. So he told his teammates to take advantage of the situation whenever they could.

Marcus Smart draws two critical charges

Frustrations boiled over on both sides, with Stevens even receiving a rare technical foul for arguing a play in the third quarter. But Harden was most dismayed, particularly in the second half, as he constantly drove toward the basket and attempted to draw contact.


“First of all, how do you have two officials on a national TV game?” Harden said. “That’s the first question. A lot of grabbing, a lot of holding. How else and I supposed to get open? A guy has two arms wrapped around my whole body.”

The NBA on Friday will release a report that goes over the calls from the last two minutes of the game, but that will mostly just irritate at least one fan base. Regardless, the Rockets agreed that they should not have let the game get to that tense ending.

“We just didn’t come out necessarily with rhythm or fire,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Irving finished with 26 points to lead the Celtics, and Tatum added 19 points, 5 rebounds and one massive block on a Harden 3-point attempt in the final minute.

Harden had 34 points but made just 7 of 27 shots. The Rockets, who were without the injured All-Star point guard Chris Paul and starting center Clint Capela, were just 9 of 36 from the field in the second half.

Jayson Tatum scored 19 points and grabbed 5 rebounds for the Celtics.
Jayson Tatum scored 19 points and grabbed 5 rebounds for the Celtics.(JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF)

Houston had the best record in the NBA just over one week ago, but now it has dropped four games in a row, a streak that began when Paul was injured. The Celtics were well aware of Paul’s absence, so they focused on wearing down Harden with full-court pressure throughout the second half. It appeared to work.


“The fact that our guys took the challenge and picked him 94 feet,” Horford said, “it wears on you, possession by possession.”

The Rockets hit the Celtics at the start and did not let up. Their formula was not all that unusual for them. They poured in 3-pointers from all angles and let Harden carve through Boston’s defense mostly as he pleased, leading to countless layups and dunks.

The Celtics entered the night averaging 14 turnovers per game, and nine minutes into the first quarter they had committed eight. Boston made just 5 of 19 shots in the first quarter and did not attempt a free throw, as Houston stormed to a 32-12 lead. The advantage stretched to 26 points in the second quarter, and the packed holiday crowd at the Garden grew increasingly restless and frustrated.

With 5 minutes, 20 seconds left in the third quarter, the Rockets still had a seemingly comfortable 23-point lead. Then they let up for an instant, and the Celtics finally struck, needing just 1:42 to unspool a 10-0 run that was capped by a Marcus Morris 3-pointer.

Terry Rozier had a steal and a dunk that was followed by a three-point play that pulled Boston within 87-86 with 5:16 left in the game, and that set the stage for the wild, unlikely finish.

“We just didn’t stop believing,” Rozier said.

Terry Rozier makes the steal

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach